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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

The Dohani War

by Michael E. Lloyd

The original text of this rich and rewarding novel has already been amply and very positively reviewed by Don Webb himself, in Issue 391 of Bewildering Stories. In this review I wish simply to add a few specific points of my own on certain aspects of the novel’s principal characterisations and thematic colour, and on Martin Kerharo’s original French text, and on Don’s fine translation.

Some of the greatest stories in Western literature are those involving “tourists in another land.” To take just a few examples from the French canon alone, we have Voltaire’s unhappy, passive Candide and Montesquieu’s fascinated, active Persians, let alone the carefree explorer “Cyrano as himself” and even Camus’ “alien-thinking” wanderer Meursault, who is a stranger in his own societal landscape. And now Martin Kerharo presents us with two new “displaced beings” in a three-stage story that sees each of them in turn exposed to the inexplicable behaviours of the other’s totally alien society.

The fairly active hero of the novel is one Lieutenant Zimski, but that hardly suggests he’s a native Frenchman! No, he’s a future-day Earthman, and his first name, Dexter — a Latin word whose most appropriate meaning here is “upright friend” — gives us from the outset the clearest possible indication of his laudable character, which does not falter throughout the long course of the action. This conscientious Federation officer struggles stoically to maintain his integrity and self-control in increasingly demanding and tempting situations. Dexter is a pretty good role model for the young and even not-so-young male adult audience of this story.

The more important, more active heroine is the Dohani-humanoid “Jane,” the first of the pair to suffer the ignominy of capture and examination by her “countrymen’s” assumed enemies. Jane is a wilful girl-on-a-mission, and like Dexter she sustains her own variety of integrity throughout, only adjusting her priorities and self-interest as their understanding of each other and of their enemies’ societies steadily improves. And I must make mention of “Natasha’s” delightful yet terrifying graphic art portrait of the redoubtable red-eyed Jane. We have all, I suspect, encountered somebody much like her: a shrew not easily tamed.

And the structural leitmotif of a snippet of modern song lyrics introducing each tersely titled chapter is dear to my own heart. It works beautifully here by grounding the story’s apparently fantastical plot in an extended stream of honest-to-goodness, well-recognised human experiences, usually relating of course to the agonies and the ecstasies of this thing called Love. For The Dohani War is above all a love story, no less than Romeo and Juliet and with a very similar social backdrop defining and influencing the fates of the differently star-crossed lovers.

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The original French text, Dohani : Guerre, is an absolute pleasure to read. Martin Kerharo manages a slick and effective combination of raging action narrative, delicate relationship developments, futuristic mises en scène, and believable “contemporary” dialogue, all in a language not naturally suited to that task. And he gives the whole thing a strong “classical” flavour by deploying the now rarely used passé simple verb tense for his narration. The result is a clever mélange of “old” style and “modern” subject matter, and positive comparisons with those great “willing and not-so-willing tourist hero” texts of 17th- and 18th-century French literature are again easy to draw and surely quite valid. Bravo, Martin !

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Some translations are done for money, some are done as a favour to a friend, and some are done from pure admiration of the text itself. The latter — such as Don Webb’s own translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World — are usually by far the finest, and his own brand-new translation of Dohani : Guerre is assuredly one of those.

Don brings his deep translating experience and his love of the French language to the highly pleasurable task of rendering this wonderful story in an appropriate English style. Working in the classic language of science fiction (pace Cyrano and some other early SF luminaries!), he can eschew the nicety of the “classical” aspects of Martin Kerharo’s quaint French text and produce a beautiful fusion of modern high-tech jargon/phraseology and the tender words and eternal sentiments of medieval courtly love.

Martin Kerharo’s novel is a remarkably rich but highly accessible portrayal of the complex interplay between and among individuals and their societies. With this translation, Don Webb delivers it to a worldwide audience, enhancing it with his own experience and making this fine story still finer.

Copyright © 2013 by Michael E. Lloyd

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